The MG, I call it, the mental gate—the most important quality of mind. Without it, even a genius becomes a cowering idiot or a crazed compulsive.
It’s like one of those metal grilles that shopkeepers pull down when they lock up a store. You can see through it, of course, but if you’re on the inside, you know the world is safely blocked out, at least for the time being, and you can enjoy the game on TV, a cold beer, and a few laughs as if there were no dark street outside, no creepy types peering in the window, no homeless person sleeping under a flattened cardboard box in the doorway.
When the MG fails and the dreads sneak in—well, I’ve seen it in my wife, Sarah. Obsessive worrying, then chronic indigestion, then insomnia, fatigue, cranky headaches, weight loss.
When we were young, I was the nervous one, she the calming influence. But in graduate school, I lost faith that I could succeed as a sociologist, or even that I wanted to. It was Sarah who kept bucking me up till I stumbled onto the subject I was searching for, the sociology of sport, an odd choice for someone with no athletic talent but one that appealed to my sense of life as a long struggle for mostly symbolic purposes. Meanwhile, Sarah zipped through the work in her field, consumer economics, which suited her penchant for factual data fraught with social significance.
Later, when our two kids were born, Sarah continued to be the composed one, trusting that childhood problems would sort themselves out, while I fretted about potential vaccine side-effects and the qualifications of soccer coaches. But as I grew fatter and older and tenured, I mellowed out and we had a number of well-adjusted years, even when the kids hit their teens.
The big change began with Sarah’s mother’s decline. Alice, my mother-in-law, had lived a full life, raising four children, running the neighborhood Girl Scouts, serving as a school secretary after the kids were grown. Her banker husband, a decade older, survived well into his eighties, and she tended him faithfully in his last years when his crabbiness made him intolerable for everyone else. When he passed away, we thought that Alice, freed from nursing chores, might find some enjoyment in her own so-called golden years. Aside from osteoporosis and a somewhat erratic heartbeat, both manageable, Alice was in good shape, and we convinced her to move to a high-rise city condo half a mile from our place, thinking she’d want to pop by often to see her grandchildren. After the move, though, she showed less and less interest in our lives. She smiled when we mentioned the kids’ exploits but seldom asked questions about them. Except for a daily walk around the building’s perimeter, she scarcely left her apartment. She made no friends in the complex, though at least 60 percent of the residents were little old ladies like her. We reasoned that her husband, in his final years, had become her exclusive job, her reason for carrying on, and without him she needed time to find a new motivation.
It was at the turn of the millennium that we realized the problem ran deeper. One afternoon Alice stood at the door to her kitchen, where Sarah had been demonstrating the microwave we’d bought her. “I don’t think I’ll catch on,” Alice smiled at me, with her version of the classic technology-is-beyond-me look. “What does it do?”
I smiled back at her from a seat in the living room. Though stooped from the osteoporosis, she was an attractive 74-year-old, white curls framing her forehead, big blue eyes, a cute pointy chin. “You can heat your soup for lunch without turning on the stove,” I pointed out. “It’s faster, less messy. You won’t even need a saucepan.”
“I had lunch already,” said Alice.
“I mean tomorrow, the next day.”
“For tomorrow I bought tuna fish.”
“OK, Mom,” Sarah broke in from behind her, “if you don’t want to use the microwave, don’t bother.” She paused to let the annoyance drain from her voice. “Listen, I wanted to ask you about Friday night. We’re invited to some friends’ house, but I thought we’d leave early and come over here in case you want to stay up.”
“Well, so we can be with you at the start of the new century, the new millennium. It doesn’t happen very often, you know!” Sarah angled into the wide doorway beside her mother and squeezed her shoulders, laughing.
Alice grinned awkwardly and tried to duck out of the embrace. “New cen-,” she muttered, “I don’t know.”
“Why, you don’t want us around?” Sarah joked.
“Uh,” I said, catching on, “Sarah, I don’t think she—”
“What?” Sarah snipped at me. “Look, Mom, this Friday is New Year’s Eve,” she explained patiently, “and since this is a special one, goodbye to the 1900s, we thought you might want to observe it in some way. At least watch the celebration on TV, have a glass of sherry maybe.”
Alice wandered into the dining area, toward one of the large windows that looked beyond her balcony to the city stretching in the distance. She poked the leaves of a tall hibiscus plant. When she turned around, we could read the message in her tightened eyes, her bowed neck, her parted lips: she hadn’t the slightest comprehension of a new century or millennium.
In the next weeks, after Alice got lost during her daily circumambulation of the building and twice left her key ring dangling from her mailbox, a geriatric workup confirmed our suspicions. Within days, Sarah and her sister had hired a companion, a Jamaican woman who came highly recommended from a similar situation five floors up, where her charge had just passed into the ultimate forgetfulness. Josie was both competent and compassionate, and soon she and Alice became fast friends in spite of the 40-year age gap. Sarah went over every night, after Josie left, to make sure Alice took her last set of pills and got settled in bed. Every morning Sarah phoned to make sure Josie had arrived, though the woman was as dependable as sunrise. Soon I realized, from dinner conversations, that Sarah was calling six or seven times a day from her office.
Though the doctors couldn’t predict the rate of decline, I assured Sarah she was doing everything she ought to. But Sarah focused on “what-ifs,” on problems and dangers. “What if, in a year or so, she can’t feed herself? We can’t ask Josie to—”
“We’ll deal with that when and if it happens,” I said.
“But yesterday Josie said she kept a pill in her mouth and pretended to swallow it but then spit it out when she thought nobody was looking.”
“Well, that proves Josie’s on top of things. She’s got experience, she knows the game. Just don’t bring her in here—I don’t want her learning my game.”
“No, but what I mean is, what if—”
In retrospect, I can see that Sarah’s MG was already deteriorating. After we’d gone to bed, when I’d roll over and snuggle my arm around her, she’d bolt upright in sudden anxiety. “There was a packet of mouse poison on the counter,” she said. “Josie got it at the store because the neighbors saw one.” “Yeah, they saw a mouse, so what?” “What if Mom thinks the poison is food?” “Oh, come on Sarah, it doesn’t look like food, she never eats anything in the morning but toast, she probably couldn’t open the package anyway, and Josie will be there at 7 a.m.” But Sarah would yank on jeans and a sweatshirt and thump downstairs, and a minute later I’d hear the car engine grumble. “You shouldn’t go out alone this late! Take the dog at least!” I’d shout after her, but my stubbornness kept me under the covers.
In the short run, I was right: There was no point in obsessive worry. In the long run, Sarah was right: Disaster did strike. Not that we could have averted it. Josie was on duty on an ordinary morning when Alice tripped on her hibiscus plant and fractured her collarbone. Josie called immediately; we reached the hospital within minutes. It turned out the break itself was not severe, but the orthopedists, analyzing the scans, insisted the broken edge might hit a nerve, causing paralysis, so they encased her in a stiff neck brace to restrict movement. In such a tiny person, with a chest partly collapsed from osteoporosis, it also restricted breathing. Soon she had to be treated for shock. The heart doctors, watching the monitors, infused her with chemicals. The respiratory specialists decided her lungs were compromised, and by the next day, she was hooked to a ventilator. When you glanced into the room from the hall, you saw nothing but machinery. The tiny human in the midst of the apparatus developed pneumonia from the germs floating around the hospital, got heavy doses of antibiotics, rallied for a day and began breathing on her own, semiconscious. In the middle of the night, a phone call came: pneumonia again, breathing collapsed. Dead by morning.
The ordeal lasted five days in all, and though Sarah’s sister took turns at the bedside, Sarah herself spent 18 hours of every 24 in the hospital. In her absence, I assumed her share of household duties, which included taking Holly the border collie to chase squirrels in the park and yelling at Cindy, our 14-year-old, to get moving in the morning. Paul, our son, now in his freshman year at college, offered to catch the train home, but Sarah discouraged him. She was almost possessive about hospital duty, including the right to berate the MDs. One morning, when she pointed out an orthopedist from the team that had ordered the neck brace, I threatened to give him a dose of his own medicine—“Do you think he has any idea what that thing feels like?”—but as I flexed my fingers around his imaginary neck, she slapped my arm and told me to grow up.
When the end came, I was half-inclined to sue for malpractice. Sarah wouldn’t hear of it—wisely, I guess. Her grief was bigger than mine and more complicated. For months, she added her mother’s opinion to our conversations: “If my Mom were here, she’d tell you…” She rambled through long Alice stories at dinner, and kept regretting she hadn’t asked Alice more about the family’s early years. All this was normal, I’m sure, but before long I saw that the loss had undermined her typical trust that things could sort themselves out.
Sarah is a slight woman like Alice, with an elegant figure, eyes more turquoise than blue, hair a sleek peppery gray. She surprises people with her fiery directness, which is probably why she rose to VP at her midsize financial consulting firm. You’d suppose, given the industry in which she’s prospered, that she’d have a measured attitude toward risk—acknowledging it, planning for it, ultimately accepting it—and I’m sure that’s the way she worked for decades. Though she’s always been sensitive to other people’s suffering, she maintained that essential perspective, the knowledge that the tsunami was in Indonesia, the massacre in Iraq, not here.
But once a personal tragedy slips past the gate, the MG can fall apart like its namesake, that old British sports car that kept mechanics in business for decades. For Sarah, the symptoms were subtle at first. Some reasonable concerns about her own health: a bone scan for signs of osteoporosis (result: bone loss “typical” for a 48-year-old female); her first complete physical in eight years (result: blood pressure a little high; return in six months); a dermatologist visit for a persistent crusty spot on her scalp (result: minor basal cell carcinoma, easily excised). Soon the worries spread outward. She’d challenge me, for instance: When did I last have my cholesterol checked? Did that bruise on my leg clear up? Did my colleague Ron still light up right outside the building, exposing all of us to secondhand smoke in the doorway?
Storms began to make her uneasy: what if a falling tree limb knocked power lines into our yard? She developed a fear of driving on expressways; no matter who was at the wheel, her lips went blue as trucks zoomed past and her spine went rigid when some idiot cut across two lanes.
The kids became a special obsession: Would Paul ever find a girlfriend or choose a major, or was he condemned to a life of lonely drifting? Did that mark on his face look like what he said it was, a shaving cut? Did Cindy’s sleeping habits indicate something worse than adolescent lethargy? When Cindy hurled insults at her mother (“Don’t tell me what to wear! You’re so stuck in the last century!”), was she on drugs? On all these points, my assurance of our kids’ normality and health brought troubled, sidelong, sometimes scornful looks, as if I were willfully blind or stupid. “Alice would say,” she’d begin, and contradict me with a judgment I’d never heard Alice utter.
Perhaps she even worried about our marriage. She’d ask half-teasingly if I intended to dump her for a younger, happier woman. In response, I’d point out that since she handled all our investments, I’d be ruined if I deserted her. “True,” she managed a smile, “but is money that important to you?” “Yeah, I need a new widescreen TV for my baseball research.”
My stupid jokes didn’t help much. Before long, Sarah sat up till three a.m. turning matters over and over in her mind, picking at her fingernails and rubbing the wound on her scalp. Crippling headaches and fits of diarrhea became weekly features.
I tried to translate my sociological research into amateur psychology. In my decades of studying games, I’ve seen that successful sports figures create especially strong MGs to block out their doubts. In fact, the best athletes, I’m convinced, see the contest not as their team against another, or themselves against an opponent, but as the human mind and body against all the forces that limit us and threaten to shut us down—a rebellion against the mortal condition, a pushback against the universe. If that’s what you’re doing, you don’t dare entertain thoughts that could weaken your determination.
But how could this insight help with Sarah? “Rah, rah, win one for the human race”? She’d think me a fool. So instead of pep talks, I tried extra reassurances and hugs, and I anticipated problems to prevent her obsessing about them: “Holly’s foot is fine, just a little rash; we stopped by the vet and got an ointment for her.” “No, that old wiring in Paul’s apartment is OK; I sent him money to have an electrician check it.” And I attempted gentle lectures: “You know, honey, these worries are just a slump feeding on itself.” When these approaches got nowhere, I urged her to see a therapist.
“That’s ridiculous,” she snapped, “what would I say to a therapist?”
“Explain how worried you are.”
“But most people sleep more than four hours a night. Most people don’t have constant stomach pain.”
Big sarcastic sigh from her: “Therapists don’t do anything but write prescriptions.”
“So get some pills! What’s wrong with that? All our friends take them.”
“Get some pills yourself and leave me alone!”
Again, in the short run, I was right. No tsunamis swamped our city. Paul found a major (biotechnology) and, wonder of wonders, a lovely, smart girlfriend. Cindy’s sloth abated sufficiently for her to get into a fine college where she excelled in political science. Her sarcasm softened enough that she could spend ten minutes with her mother without a spat. Sarah’s scalp cancer proved as trifling as the dermatologist said it would. No truck smashed our Toyota. The dog’s foot healed right away.
But again, in the long run, Sarah was right. Early this past summer, a truck smashed Cindy.
Just graduated, she had planned a year off in New York before going on for her master’s. She rode her bike to a job in a magazine office. She had all the safety gear: helmet, horn, flashing lights. Which didn’t help much when the furniture van swerved and sent her flying headfirst over the sidewalk into the stone facade of a warehouse.
The helmet kept her alive, but with extensive brain trauma. Her jaw and three other bones in her head snapped. We rushed to New York, arriving midway through six hours of surgery. It was successful, they said, but Cindy remained in a coma. No one could say when or whether she’d regain consciousness. No one could say whether, if she did wake up, she’d be more than a vegetable.
Different city, different hospital, but the machines looked all too familiar. The ventilator that breathed for her. The vital signs monitor. The IV drips. Instead of a neck brace like her grandmother’s, Cindy had thick white gauze over her scalp and half her face, wires holding her jaw in place, a drain in her temple. My knees crumpled when I saw her. It was several hours before I was coherent enough to talk with the doctors and nurses and arrange a place for us to stay.
By then Sarah had established her post in a chair at the foot of the bed, where she remained as fixed in her station as a guard at Buckingham Palace. Given what the medical profession had done to Alice, vigilance was important, but Sarah took it to the point of compulsion. While I paced the corridors and pestered the nurses for extra information, she scarcely budged for bathroom breaks. I swear she watched every breath that Cindy took. Though I dragged her to a hotel at night, she neither ate nor slept. Soon she looked worse than most of the patients on the floor. When Paul came for two days he whispered to me, “Mom’s in bad shape, she needs to get away from there for a while.”
“Don’t you think I know that? I’ve been trying.”
After two weeks, with no change in Cindy’s condition, the social worker raised the topic of “long-term care” options—which we understood to mean that if Cindy didn’t improve, she’d be kicked out. Sarah was outraged. “They don’t know my Cindy,” she glowered. “No,” I mumbled, “they don’t. But they’ve seen dozens of other cases.” She shut her face and turned away.
Sarah wouldn’t discuss the prognosis. By this point, her skin was so pale, her eyes and lips so bruised that she resembled a cartoon ghoul. She’d dropped at least ten pounds, a critical amount for someone who considered herself fat at 115.
Sarah’s office had given her leave, but I had a summer class to teach that no one else could reasonably take on. After three weeks at the hospital I agonized over the choices, finally proposing that we return home from Monday afternoons through Thursday mornings. Sarah flat-out refused, and she upset me so much I ended up shouting in the hospital corridor.
“We’ll call the nurses five times a day,” I urged. “You can’t do anything here. Come home a few days, get some rest.”
“No, I’m not leaving her.”
“She doesn’t know you’re here!” I yelled.
“She might. Any day. The last CAT scan showed—”
“Sarah, look, Paul agrees you need to get away. He was emphatic about it. He said—”
“It’s none of Paul’s business. It was very nice of him to visit his mashed-up sister for two whole days. I’m sure his girlfriend can’t do without him any longer.”
“Sarah, cut it out! Don’t blame Paul for being realistic. He saw he wasn’t any use here, and you’re not either. The doctors think it’s no good for you to—”
“They don’t know my Cindy.” This was becoming a refrain, and it sounded less and less rational.
“I’m not talking about Cindy, I’m talking about you. You’re a wreck, you’re ruining your own health. Come out for a good meal at least.”
“The nurses brought me a salad while you were schmoozing with the social worker.”
“I wasn’t—a salad isn’t enough to—shit, shit, shit.”
I made sure she had the key to the hotel room—which I knew she’d never use—and then I bolted. To my warped senses, it seemed the hospital corridors squeezed in like a flattening toothpaste tube. Along the Jersey Turnpike, the sun smeared purple muck, bloodying the roadside trees. In our own city the air smelled like acid haze and clanged with hollow yellow voices.
I fetched Holly from the kennel. Overjoyed to see me, she demanded a run to the park, but even there misfortune had struck. The city had torn up the road, the sidewalk, and a third of the grass—some inexplicable sewer project, I supposed—creating mounds of rubble and scaring off the squirrels, whose nests hung deserted in the oak trees. “I’m sorry,” I moaned as Holly pulled from one tree to the next, continually disappointed, “I’m just so, so sorry.” I sat on a bench and cried for ten minutes while the dog poked a puzzled nose at my knee.
Another three weeks passed. I checked with Sarah multiple times every weekday and drove to New York on the weekends. Each of these drives seemed like the longest 170 minutes of my life. My residual anger about what had happened to Alice morphed into a resolve to challenge the doctors and social worker, demand better treatment, insist on the latest, most comprehensive…. But at the same time, I knew there was nothing to be done: I was losing both my daughter and my wife and nobody could help. I fumed about the driver of the furniture truck, whom I’d never laid eyes on. For the whole trip, I fought and fought against nobody, and when I finally stomped into the hospital room, there was Sarah still at the foot of the bed, there was Cindy still unconscious, there was the machinery still whirring and clicking and pumping like the cold metallic heart of the universe.
Each time Sarah looked even worse, her bony shoulders hunched, her clothes rumpled and hair ratty. I brought some extra clothes from her dresser but she rarely changed. Always cold in the hospital, she wore an old beige cotton sweater that grew lumpy and greasy. Playing psychologist again, I decided her fanatical devotion stemmed from refusal to acknowledge her own hopelessness, and this gave me something else to rave to myself about. But my anger turned into queasy futility, and the drive back home each Sunday night passed in a stupor.
I investigated long-term care institutions quietly, and their cheery brochures smudged brown stains across my vision. At the same time, I lobbied for an extended hospital stay, using every tiny change recorded by the medical instruments to bolster our case with the insurance company and the social worker (who had given up speaking to Sarah). These tasks couldn’t keep me from self-pity, though. When I set out with the dog, I imagined the half-sympathetic, half-repulsed whispers of neighbors peering from behind their curtains. Nobody likes a sufferer. I didn’t like myself right then or Sarah. I still loved Cindy, but this emotion was as insubstantial as embracing steam.
To avoid our empty house and its tea-colored shadows, I spent extra time walking Holly. I tried sniffing the world the way she did, but a scent like rotten peaches tainted the air. When I started to forget my lecture notes, lose students’ papers, oversleep and arrive late for class, I consulted a shrink, who wrote a script for pills that I told him, with an ironic laugh, I should share with my wife. “Ask her to come see me,” he said. “She won’t,” I groaned, “she’ll tough it out or die trying. Probably the latter.” “If you keep thinking that way,” he frowned, “these pills may not help.”
Then the slow miracle began. One of Cindy’s eyes briefly opened—the one not covered by the bandage. Sarah screamed like a Super Bowl winner on the phone, and I rushed to New York. The next day, a hand budged. After a week more, Cindy blinked when Sarah spoke to her. She grimaced. She jerked an arm toward her mother.
In a few days she was mostly awake, sipping water through a straw. Paul visited again, and she lifted her head when she saw him. We thought she wanted to speak but couldn’t with her jaw wired shut, so a nurse brought a pencil and clipboard. Gripping the pencil in her fist, she twitched her arm around to scrawl a huge and barely legible “HI.” Sarah was ecstatic. I leaped like a wide receiver in the end zone and exchanged high-fives with Paul. The doctors couldn’t conceal their amazement.
It took many more weeks, but progress was steady, and one day, at long last, the wires came off Cindy’s jaw. Her eyes—both uncovered now—rotated slowly around the hospital room and came to rest on her mother, her constant companion for months. Sallow-faced, Sarah gazed back with adoration, clenching Cindy’s hand. Our daughter murmured a jumble of sounds and we beamed encouragement. After several minutes of effort she produced her first intelligible words, slurred but unmistakable: “Mo-o-om, dah sweater izz aww-ful.”
In the stunned silence, I burst out laughing. I doubled over and leaned on a wall. Through the tears sluicing my eyes, I saw Sarah hunched as if she’d been punched in the face, and I cackled, “Sarah, no, no, don’t be upset, it’s fine, she’s back! Our daughter is back!”
Sarah quivered as I wrapped my arms around her shoulders. Gamely she sat up and smiled, but the humor of the situation was beyond her.
“Hey Da,” Cindy then said. “Izzz me.”
“I know it is, honey!” I grinned. “As obnoxious as ever!”
More weeks passed, including some in a rehab facility, and then they both came home. Since then, day by day, I’ve been focusing on the therapists’ mantra—patience, persistence, one step at a time, the same counsel you hear from sports trainers.
It’s November now, and Cindy walks around the house, climbs stairs slowly, eats two and a half meals a day, talks abstractly of resuming her life. For a person once fussy about appearance, she’s adapted well to the plum-colored scar across her forehead. She can’t read without getting a headache, however, and after ten minutes of TV she acts dazed. Regaining “functionality,” as the therapists glibly term it, isn’t the same as being whole again, and I don’t know when or whether she’ll return to work or school.
Sarah hasn’t gone back to work either—maybe her career is over—but she gets out of the house for grocery shopping and dog walking. Though she claims not to recognize the old lady in the mirror, she’s gained back a pound or two. Her headaches and indigestion seem less frequent, and she sleeps five or six hours a night. She hugs Cindy and me and manages to laugh a little. Last week she drove Cindy to a mall for a bit of Christmas shopping and ended up buying them both some new jeans and tops. She’s invited Paul’s girlfriend for the holidays, which means she’s thinking ahead, at least a few weeks.
Night before last, she allowed me to make love to her for the first time since the accident. “Allowed” is the right word; she had no passion for it. But in this regime of patience and persistence, I suppose gentle affection is acceptable for now.
Her MG, I think, is strengthening. She’s optimistic about Cindy’s future but not delusional, and smaller problems seem to glance off her. When Paul got laid off, she had only a minor fret about his chances for a new job. (He found one in ten days.) When his girlfriend announced that she would never have children, Sarah smiled and shrugged, as if there were plenty of time for such decisions.
As for my own MG, I don’t know. In some ways, I’m struggling more than Sarah—and I thought she was the damaged one. Now that the family is safe, temporarily, I can’t get my spirits roused again. Can’t get energized about my courses. Can’t even watch or think about sports because they seem so pointless.
The short run always turns into the long run, I’ve been musing. The fullback fights off his ankle injury today so he can get his knee ripped to shreds in the next game. We can admire his courage but what’s the use? I wonder. How do people face large-scale tragedies, the real tsunamis and massacres, and keep going? I thought I knew the trick but obviously not.
I cope by applying myself to current tasks, no matter how trivial. It’s the short-run, one-step-at-a-time mantra carried to the limit. At Saturday breakfast, if Sarah asks whether I’ll go grocery shopping with her around 11:00, I grump that I can’t plan that far in advance. I concentrate on my cornflakes. Exasperated, she points out that, since I’m still taking the pills she refused, I ought to be more cheerful. So I make a joke about buying Cheerios.
One habit I picked up during Cindy’s hospitalization has stayed with me: long tramps with Holly around the neighborhood and park. The construction project with its piles of stone and broken asphalt has matured into a local landmark with no apparent purpose or future, but I admire Holly as she charges to where the squirrels once lived, full of doggish faith in their return.